Oct 23, 2009

Susan Arnout Smith: author Q and A

Susan Arnout Smith's latest thriller is: Out At Night

1.Susan, what made you decide to write mysteries?

Susan: I love puzzles. Mysteries and thrillers exist
in some ways in very moral universes. We want the good guys to win. We want the evil ones to be punished. In the real world, we live with moral ambiguities.
And while the best thrillers and mysteries are built in that gray netherworld
of moral complexity, the bottom truth is that we want there to be a hope
at the end of the journey for good to win. Whatever good means.

This is your third Grace Descanso novel.
Susan: Actually, Out at Night is the second Grace Descanso thriller. (The Timer Game was the first, Minotaur 2008).
2. Genetically modified foods in a controversial topic. How much of what is written in Out at Night is fact and how much is fiction re: what is being done in modified foods?

Susan: Great question, Harvee.

Short answer: It's real. Every time a writer creates a thriller, it's a new world that's being created. That means that if it feels real, it's real.

In this case, I wanted to get the facts right. Then I could tweak them
to make things scary. I love to work with experts,
and probably the most unsettling thing about the 'what if' I created is the expert's belief that the scenario I'd created (using facts as a jumping off point), could absolutely come true.

So. Here are some of the facts:

Hunger is a terrible thing and in the lab, scientists have created seeds that are drought resistant, weed resistant and even some, (like Golden Rice, genetically modified to carry Vitamin A), will significantly improve the lives of kids in Third World countries and prevent blindness.

And it's also true that scientists are combining genes from different organisms (translation: taking genes from humans and adding them to plants), to create crops that will produce vaccines for AIDS and Hep B, or create insulin or help clot blood or inhibit diarrhea.

But what if you don't want to eat a plant that produces a human gene to help clot blood? And what if this plant, once grown in a certain area, is still contaminating the soil and getting into the non-GM plants
in a new harvest?

In 2005, the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs released a study that GM crops contaminate the countryside for up to fifteen years
after being harvested.

Another worry in America has been that about two-thirds of all processed foods sold in American grocery stores are made with genetically modified crops. Two-thirds. That's an amazing statistic.

We have packaging that identifies calories and fat grams, but no labeling
in stores of GM foods. (This labeling is mandatory in the UK). In August,
it was reported in the New York Times that there's a push for labeling to identify processed foods made with GM crops, so this might be changing.

Why is the issue of GM crops important?

Well, some scientists say it could be affecting our health. Big time.

In 2008, the Austrian government released the results of a five month study that confirmed that GM corn directly affected the reproductive health in mice. Now there's a push in Austria
to immediately ban all GM crops and goods to protect the fertility of women around the world.

The Russians completed a similar study at the Russian Academy, with similar results. Over half the offspring of lab rats fed GM crops died within the first three weeks of life. And all the GM offspring
in the preliminary results were sterile.

So this is what interested me about GM crops. Here we have the chance to do good things: create seeds that will grow with little rain. Prevent weeds from choking plants. And create crops that carry antidotes
and vaccines and blood clotting mechanisms.

And. . .those very modifications could be costing us our health.

I love the light;/dark, good/bad and yes, moral ambiguity of this subject.

3. Do you still work for TV and radio, or are you a fulltime writer?

Susan: I'm a fulltime writer. I have two screenplays
that are being shopped in Hollywood, I'm working on the third Grace Descanso thriller and have been commissioned to write a play for a theater in New York.

4. What's the best thing about writing mysteries/thrillers?
Susan: Researching new areas. Diving into a subject that has two diametrically opposed moral sides and exploring both sides equally. And the puzzle. Pushing myself to make the ending seem surprising and at the same time, inevitable. Playing fair with my readers by putting in clues and yet hiding them well enough to keep readers turning pages long past the time they promised to turn out the light.

5. What's the worst thing, if any?
Susan: I love every part of this work.

6. The setting for Out at Night is in San Diego and Palm Springs, CA. You are originally from Alaska. Have you used Alaska as a setting for either of your previous books?

Susan: My first novel is an historical novel called The Frozen Lady and takes place in Alaska. It starts around the turn of the century (late 1800's) and ends in the 1970's, and weaves together the lives of a Tarimuit Eskimo family (usually called Inuit), living near what is now Barrow, and a white family which settled in Alaska during the Gold Rush.
7. Do you have any other books in the works?
Susan: Yes, I'm well into the third Grace Descanso thriller.
This one's particularly fun. Her father washed overboard when she was eleven, and she suddenly believes she's seen him, so it's the hunt for her dad.

8. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Susan: I have webisodes on my website: www.thetimergame.com (twenty-two mini-dramas
that end in a cliff-hangar that's paid off in The Timer Game), and a second set of webisodes on www.susanarnoutsmith.com (mini-dramas dovetail with Out at Night).

Thanks, Susan.

And thank you, Harvee. Wonderful questions!
(Click here to see my review of Out At Night.)

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  1. Scary stuff about GM foods; it reminds me of something Michael Crichton would have written.

    Good interview--meat without mush.

  2. Hi, Harvee! Thanks so much for sharing another great author interview. I really look forward to reading this feature of your blog!

  3. Charlie: This subject is so interesting, I may share it with some writing students looking for research topics.

    Peter: Glad you like the author interviews. Maybe I should do more of them!


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